By Steve Greene | Criticwire September 27, 2013 at 4:07PM
A few films have already screen for critics, but the New York Film Festival officially begins tonight with the premiere screening of "Captain Phillips," the latest film from director Paul Greengrass. As with a number of other festivals that take place around the late-summer/fall seasons, the lineup for the 51st NYFF features a few films that have screened at other locations throughout the year.
Select films on the NYFF slate will enjoy a first wave of critical reaction in New York, but many have played other festivals worldwide. Combing through the reviews from members of our Criticwire Network and beyond, we've gathered some enlightening initial reactions from reviews originally written at Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Telluride and Locarno. Most of these are positive, but there are a handful that go against the general flow of praise. Either way, they're ideal conversation starters for some of this year's world cinema highlights.
(For more thoughts on each of the films, click through to the individual film pages for grades and reviews from other distinguished and erudite writers. You can find a complete list of feature films playing NYFF 2013 here.)
Films of the 51st New York Film Festival
All is Lost (directed by JC Chandor)
Cast: Robert Redford
NYFF Synopsis: "Robert Redford as you’ve never seen him before, gives a near-wordless all-action performance as a lone sailor trying to keep his yacht afloat after a collision with a discarded shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (14 grades)
One to Read: Tim Grierson writes at Screen Daily that the film manages to avoid the usual tired trappings of survival stories. From Redford's central performance, to Chandor's script, even down to Pete Beaudreau's editing, these elements come together to make a cohesive, compelling tale that never feels static. (You can also see the instant reaction to the film in our Cannes Review Report from back in May.)
At Berkeley (directed by Frederick Wiseman)
NYFF Synopsis: "Another masterfully constructed documentary from Frederick Wiseman, examining the University of California, Berkeley from multiple angles - the administrators, the students, the surrounding community - to arrive at a portrait that is as rich in detail as it is epic in scope."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (3 grades)
One to Read: "At Berkeley" is a worthy and emblematic addition to Wiseman's body of work, argues Andrew Schenker at Slant Magazine. Rather than limit the scope of the film to the titular university, Wiseman makes UC Berkeley a case study for how the higher education landscape is evolving, a choice that helps to sustain the film's massive runtime.
Bastards (directed by Clare Denis)
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Lola Créton
NYFF Synopsis: "Claire Denis’s jagged, daringly fragmented and deeply unsettling film inspired by recent French sex ring scandals is the rarest of cinematic narratives—a contemporary film noir, perfect in substance as well as style."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (14 grades)
One to Read: In his Variety review, Scott Foundas places Denis' latest thriller in the context of not only the noir genre, but also pointing out thematic/spiritual predecessors among the works of Kurosawa and Faulkner. The worn and vulnerable performances are ideal matches for the stripped-bare, no-more-than-what-you-absolutely-need-to-know plot machinations.
The Immigrant (directed by James Gray)
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner
NYFF Synopsis: "In James Gray’s richly detailed period tragedy, set in a dusty, sepia-toned 1920s Manhattan, a young Polish immigrant is caught in a dangerous battle of wills with a shady burlesque manager."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): B (15 grades)
One to Read: This film snuck up on Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich, who argues that the film delivers on its slow-build, however simplistic the story and characters may seem at the outset. It's not exactly a bundle of laughs, but the trio of central performances help to fashion a story about attempted redemption and how our darker nature may have the upper hand.
The Invisible Woman (directed by Ralph Fiennes)
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Amanda Hale, Tom Burke, John Kavanagh
NYFF Synopsis: "Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Charles Dickens in this adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s revelatory 1992 biography, which brought the upright Victorian author’s secret 13-year affair with a young actress to light."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): B (4 grades)
One to Read: Like many other stories of less-than-upstanding Victorian behavior, William Goss points out in his Film.com review that the threat of shame and unhappiness hangs over even the earliest interactions between Dickens, his wife and his mistress. The resultant emotional repression helps lend a layer of authenticity and depth to what could have devolved into an overly simplistic and familiar tale.
Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne)
Cast: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
NYFF Synopsis: "This masterful film from Alexander Payne, about a quiet old man whose mild-mannered son agrees to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim a non-existent prize, shades from the comic to multiple hues of melancholy and regret."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): B (20 grades)
One to Read: While the script contains indicative Payneian touches (even though he didn't write it), Hitfix's Guy Lodge writes that there's a central ambivalence towards the film's main characters. Both the other technical elements and the central performances are perfunctory to a point, which perpetuates the dissonance behind the film's tonal goals.
Stranger by the Lake (directed by Alain Guiraudie)
Cast: Pierre de Ladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao
NYFF Synopsis: "Alain Guiraudie’s lethally precise, sexually explicit film, which unfolds entirely in the vicinity of a gay cruising ground, is both a no-holds-barred depiction of a hedonistic subculture and a perverse and unnerving tale of amour fou."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (13 grades)
One to Read: Many reviews are fixating on the film's explicit sexual content, but IONCinema's Nicholas Bell focuses on how those scenes build a strong, compelling relationship between those who frequent the film's titular locale. The juxtaposition of the sunlit shores and some darker, twisted late-film sequences helps to create a cinematic atmosphere that can be at times touching and tense.
Stray Dogs (directed by Tsai Ming-liang)
Cast: Kang-sheng Lee, Yi-Ching Lu, Shiang-chyi Chen, Chao-rong Chen
NYFF Synopsis: "Tsai Ming-liang’s fable of a homeless family living the cruelest of existences on the ragged edges of the modern world is bracingly pure in its anger and its compassion, and as visually powerful as it is emotionally overwhelming."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (5 grades)
One to Read: The Telegraph's Robbie Collin explains that the film's deliberate pace, while it may not land with all audiences, allows for a measured understanding of the character-based evolution at the core of "Stray Dogs." There's a meticulous sense of craft behind every camera movement and staging, with the centerpiece long takes inspiring a swirl of equally strong emotions.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (directed by Corneliu Porumboiu)
Cast: Diana Avramut, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihaela Sîrbu, Alexandru Papadopol
NYFF Synopsis: "A rigorously structured and fascinatingly oblique new film from Corneliu Porumboiu that examines the life of a film director during the moments on a shoot when the camera isn’t rolling."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): B+ (4 grades)
One to Read: The discussions of film technique are intriguing enough to sustain the film's opening third, but Eric Kohn writes in his Indiewire review from Locarno that the insistence on marrying content with form wears thin. Rather than an evolution of the Romanian New Wave, the film stays the course of the movement without standing for much more than what's already there on the surface.
The Wind Rises (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Cast: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura, Jun Kunimura, Shinobu Ōtake, Mansai Nomura
NYFF Synopsis: "The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s new film is based on the life of Jiro Hirokoshi, the man who designed the Zero fighter. An elliptical historical narrative, The Wind Rises is also a visionary cinematic poem about the fragility of humanity."
Criticwire Grade (So Far): A- (11 grades)
One to Read: Eschewing his usual fantastical approach, Miyazaki places "The Wind Rises" in a largely recognizable world. In his Venice dispatch for The Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton explains that the film still retains a personal and emotional connection to the material that feels inherent to the animated medium.